“Its politics were guided by platform metrics,” said Andrew Gauthier, who was one of BuzzFeed’s top video producers and then worked for Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign. “You always think the bad will come from the villain in the movie, and then you think to yourself – oh no, the bad can just start with bad jokes and nihilistic behavior fueled by positive reinforcement on various platforms.
And so Mr. Gionet’s story isn’t quite the familiar one of a lonely young man in his bedroom falling into a rabbit hole of videos that poison his worldview. It is the story of a man awarded for being a violent white nationalist and for receiving the attention and affirmation he apparently desperately desperately desires.
We’ve spent a lot of time at BuzzFeed thinking about how to optimize our content for an online audience; he has optimized himself.
When arrested in Scottsdale, Arizona last month for spraying mass in the eyes of a bouncer, an officer reported that Mr. Gionet “had informed me that he was an ‘influencer.’ and that he had a large audience on social networks, ”according to a police report. He was released on his own initiative, a Scottsdale police spokesperson said, and is awaiting trial. Nevertheless, in the Capitol, he shouted “ACAF” – All the cops are friends.
Her story leaves me wondering how much of the blame those of us who pioneered the use of social media to provide information deserve right now. Have we, along with the creators of these platforms, helped open Pandora’s Box?
I did not work directly with Mr. Gionet. But in 2012, I hired a writer by the name of Benny Johnson, who cultivated a voice that blended social media acumen and right-wing politics. I mistakenly thought of his policies at the time as simply conservative. And I imagined it booming, as conservative writers have done for generations in mainstream newsrooms, where they shared their colleagues’ interest in finding common facts.
It took me a while to realize that his interests were neither journalistic nor even ideological, as much as aesthetic, passionate about imagery of raw power. In the tradition of authoritarian propagandists, he was impressed by the neoclassical buildings, guns, and later crowds of Donald Trump. And, after we fired him for plagiarism in 2014, he ran the content arm of Mr. Trump’s youth wing, Turning Point USA, and hosted a show on Newsmax. Last week he was encouraging attempts to annul the election (although he withdrew when the violence started and then blamed leftists for it). It is also sale her skills in the “viral political storytelling” we worked together at BuzzFeed to a generation of new right-wing figures like Rep. Lauren Boebert, who has drawn attention for promising to bring her handgun to Congress. (Neither Mr. Gionet nor Mr. Johnson responded to email inquiries.)